So if you’re following on from my meandering explanation of why where your music comes from matters, first off thank you for sticking around. Secondly, please allow me to welcome you on this next voyage, and perhaps your first foray down into the rabbit hole that is audio.
We now know that FLAC (free lossless audio codec) is superior in terms of audio quality to Mp3 files, and that streaming services prefer to offer you a more compressed file to save on bandwidth and provide a more streamlined service, so surely that’s it, right? Get yourself some high-res files and you’re all set? Ah my dear reader, you have no idea of the can of worms you’ve just opened.
As I mentioned in my last blog, audio quality is only as strong as the weakest link. We’ve now covered off the source file, so let’s cover off the device you use to listen from. I should mention though that I won’t be diving too much into Bluetooth speakers etc., as that’s a discussion best saved for when we talk about headphones.
What I mean when I say the device you listen from refers to whether it’s a phone or a laptop, or any of the dedicated audio players that are currently on the market.
Remember the weakest link analogy? Think of the source file as the first link. Now you know you have a high-resolution file it’s on to the second link, which is how you turn those ones and zeros into sweet, sweet music.
The DAC side of the force
The first bit of kit you need to be aware of is a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), which allows your headphones or speakers to interpret the encoded files and reproduce the sound.
This is where the gaming analogies come in, as gaming and high-end audio share many of the same hallmarks. DACs are like graphics cards — a good one allows you to enjoy your chosen medium with as much fidelity as the source material can muster (which is again why source material matters).
Much like graphics cards, sometimes you find that the one your device came with simply isn’t cutting it anymore and your hardware is being throttled trying to play Pokémon Red in its stunning 8-bit graphics. So, what do you do? You get an external graphics card so you can enjoy the wonderful rainbow of 256 colours that 1996 bestowed upon you.
Similarly, this concept carries through to the world of audio. If you find that your chosen device is incapable of outputting sound at the bitrate of your files or that your device is introducing noise, you can get an external DAC with more power behind it.
The gaming analogy also rings true in that a dedicated graphics card is going to be put to better use when gaming in comparison to one that has to perform other functions — much in the same way that a dedicated DAC is going to output higher quality audio than one designed to do more than just play music. DACs in phones, for example, have to power the phone’s speakers so you can hear the other person on the line, as well as hear your alarm ring in the morning.
DAC-tor, DAC-tor! There’s a sound coming from my phone!
This may make you think “okay, so my phone has a DAC. As long as I can play music, I’ll be fine.” This is where it does get a little bit complicated so bear with me here. Although your phone may have a DAC for those things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has a DAC for transmitting audio to headphones.
As phones have moved away from having 3.5mm jacks that headphones plug into, many popular brands have removed dedicated DACs for their handsets. Instead, as a cost saving measure they’re using lower quality DACs that are good enough to drive their speakers but nothing more. This sounds like a cheap move, but it saves on cost and allows phones to be even more compact, allowing brands to bring cheaper, lighter-weight products to market.
“So then how is it that if I use an adapter to plug in my headphones I can listen to music?” This is the clever bit; the DAC is actually inside the adapter in this instance. The audio from your phone is all digital until it hits the adapter, which is then turned into an analogue signal by the adapter and passed through to the headphones.
It’s the same reason you can plug your phone into a computer and use that to move files around — it’s a digital connection. The reason Bluetooth headphones work is because the DAC is inside the headphones. Some manufacturers such as Blue also put amps inside their headphones to further enhance the sound.
Similar to the previous example, Bluetooth is a digital connection — it’s the DAC in the headphones that turns this into an analogue frequency. This doesn’t mean that the world of external DACs is reserved for cabled connections only. There are external DACs that can be used with Bluetooth headphones or speakers, but the headphones or speakers connect to the DAC and not the device.
Where the audio and visual analogy differs
There are a few more nuanced pain-points with audio than visual in this particular analogy. Some graphics, for example, won’t render properly or you may experience frame rate dips, which are very visually noticeable and sometimes even a tactile experience. Audio issues, on the other hand, may be hard to notice to all but the most discerning ear. One such audio issue is aliasing, which is where because the bitrate is too low, sometimes a really high frequency can generate a low warbling frequency. This happens because the DAC runs out of room and accidentally generates a low frequency, although it’s a niche thing and sometimes it won’t even be noticed.
The final thing on the audiophile shopping list is the amplifier. Now chances are, unless you have some serious headphones or powerful desktop speakers, the amplifier in your device will do just fine, but again, strengthening the weakest link is never a bad idea. Though delving into this right now would be spoiling the next round of this discussion, which is all about headphones and speakers.